Philip Tabane (1934-2018): South Africa’s musical genius who hated being labelled

Philip Tabane was unlike any other musician. His music was intimately woven into his cosmology and spirituality.

South African musician Philip Tabane, who died on May 18, hated being labelled. How he’d feel about the all official obituaries that confine him inside the jazz envelope is clear: “The jazz label – or any other label – has never worked in my case. Once, I went to play at a competition in Durban and in the end I was given a special prize because I could not be categorised. To this day, they still cannot categorise my music.”

That was from my second interview with the artist, in 1997 at the old Kippies jazz club in Newtown, Johannesburg. The first had been almost a decade earlier, sitting close to the riverbank outside the Woodpecker club in Gaborone, Botswana. Clouds of smoke from the log fire he’d made kept the mosquitoes away and began the slow, careful process of drying out his malombo drums, whose skins, he felt, were a bit damp and stretchy for that night’s gig. There was other smoke too, grey-green and herbally aromatic.

The rumour was that Tabane was a difficult interviewee. Sometimes he’d refuse to speak at all. Often, as was his constitutional right (South Africa has 11 official languages), he refused to speak in English.

I never found him anything but gravely courteous, as long as you listened. Tabane tolerated my linguistic inadequacies, calling in other band members when his flow of ideas simply couldn’t be pinned down in English.

His music was intimately woven into his cosmology and spirituality; he needed to talk about them all together and the English language was too culturally bounded to provide him with the right words.

I’m reluctant to attempt any kind of evaluative obituary. I’m not enough of an insider to provide one. But there are two fine pieces of writing that do get there. The first is journalist Lucas Ledwaba’s work-in-progress biography. For my money, Ledwaba touches the soul of his Malombo music and its origins in a way that few other writers have.

The second is author Bongani Madondo’s account of his expansive week-long interview for Rolling Stone SA in 2013, reprinted in his book Sigh, the Beloved Country.

‘Pere fere’ from the album, Malombo.

A family of guitarists

Tabane was born in 1934 (though some biographies give other dates) in rural Ga Ramotshegoa northeast of South Africa’s capital of Pretoria. He came from a family of guitarists: his elder brother Mmaloki, he told journalists, was “better than Wes Montgomery”. The adulation radio stations gave to American players like Montgomery mystified him.

His mother Matjale was a spiritual healer and from her he absorbed the music of her calling. His father was a devout Christian who fostered hymn-singing at family services. Tabane heard Ndebele and Sepedi traditional tunes from his local village band and despite being chased away from social functions because he was too young, he did what many young South Africans did: he covertly improvised an instrument from an oilcan and a broomstick, and tried to learn. By his teens, his parents had relented and he acquired a real guitar.

Uprooted in 1953 by the brutal forced removals of the apartheid government, the family settled in urban Mamelodi – a Pretoria township. By 1959, Tabane had formed his first band. But as the 1960s progressed, he became more interested in exploring how traditional sounds could be interpreted and extended via a blend of modern and traditional instruments. He formed Malombo, which won first prize at the 1964 Cold Castle Festival – an influential annual South African jazz competition during the 1960s.

Malombo went through multiple personnel changes as participants sought other musical directions or chose exile, but retained its percussionist rock: Gabriel “Mabi” Thobejane.

In the 1970s, Malombo spent time in the US, including an appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival, of which Jet magazine said: “One of the most pleasurable finds of the Newport Jazz Festival this year was Malombo from South Africa, Malombo create some weird and haunting music on a variety of African instruments.”

The time in America convinced him of the necessity of holding fast to roots inspiration, which he saw as a springboard for limitless imagination and innovation in technique. Tabane worked with prominent jazz players such as pianist Herbie Hancock and trumpeter Miles Davis, and even in his later days, he relished Miles’s music. But, he often told interviewers: “He plays to make money, and I play for the spirit.”

When it was suggested he played “like” Davis, he responded: “No, I don’t play like Miles. Miles plays like me.”

Resisting the hybrids

Tabane always resisted the hybridising marketing label “Malombo jazz”, as his music was tagged. But during the 1970s and 1980s, when his recordings gained status overseas with aficionados as astounding music, it was hardly heard at home. Many Tabane albums were not even available in South Africa. It was only after 1994, that the re-releases started happening, and fresh recording and performance opportunities began – too slowly – to emerge.

Tabane was not “like” any other player. His various honorary doctorates were less than his status as an original creator of unique sounds merited. To hear him live was miraculous. Dressed in a blend of cowboy-guitarist suit and traditional adornments, he’d proceed to travel from delicate, poignant melodies (often recalling his first rural home and its ways of life) to fast, mercurial runs of astounding technical virtuosity and harsh, minatory chords that seemed to rip the guts out of the instrument.

His music took you to the spheres and back: he was Africa’s Sun Ra, South Africa’s Ali Farka Toure, and a great deal more. Hamba Kahle: may his spirit rest in peace.

Tabane’s music

Here’s a selection (with some links) of Tabane’s music:

1964: Cold Castle Jazz Festival

Philip Tabane at the Castle Lager jazz festival 1964.

1969: The Indigenous Afro-jazz Sounds of Philip Tabane and Malombo

‘The Indigenous Afro Jazz Sounds’ - the full album.

1976: Malombo and Pele Pele

‘Malombo’ - the full album.

1978: Sangoma

The title track of the album, ‘Sangoma’.

1986: Man Phily (compilation); 1989 Unh! and Silent Beauty

The full album, ‘Silent Beauty’.

1996 Ke a Bereka; 1998 Muvhango;


2010: Live at The Market Theatre

Excerpt from a DVD of a concert at Johannesburg’s Market Theatre.

2013: Bajove Dokotela (SABC documentary by Khalo Matabane)

Excerpt from the documentary ‘Bajove Dokotela’.

Gwen Ansell, Associate of the Gordon Institute for Business Science, University of Pretoria

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”


“Like what?”


A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”




“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:


This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.